England v New Zealand: Key Battles to Watch
England, in most sports, have a long list of opponents who take great pleasure in beating them.
Australia immediately spring to mind, but make no mistake, New Zealand don't especially like the English either when it comes to sport.
Their attitude toward the English isn’t quite viewed as being as narky as their antipodean cousins. But it’s there. Oh, it’s there.
Remember Andrew Mehrtens, that waspish fly-half with a boot like a laser but a public demeanour as introverted as a trappist monk on a sponsored silence? Even he found the English irritable enough to commit to print the opinion that England are "pr*cks to lose to" (via The Guardian).
Really? Even down there in the Land of the Long, White Cloud, that’s what they think of the English? Must have been a right pain to see their unbeaten season go up in red and white smoke at Twickenham last year; now you sense they are out for blood this time.
The pre-game phoney war has even enveloped their usually understated coach Steve Hansen, who has gone to the extent of suggesting in the London Evening Standard he will unveil "a few things they haven't seen before" to render England's analysis of the All Blacks a waste of time.
Whether Hansen has a box of tricks in his suitcase or not remains to be seen. His side is certainly a formidable unit, so let's have a look at the key battles they'll be looking to win against England on Saturday.
Billy Vunipola v Kieran Read
One will be making only his third start; the other is at the end of a year which, if there is any justice, should see him crowned the best player on the planet.
You sense the 20-year-old Vunipola won’t care much for the laurels being placed on the Cantabrian’s head come Saturday, though. The Saracens man is, in Manu Tuliagi’s absence, the most destructive runner England have, and if they can get him running at Dan Carter from deep with a decent supply of lineout ball off the top, he can show his talents.
Read is not so much the crash-ball merchant as an all-court player with every weapon in his armoury. He can clean and clear at rucks with the best of them, and his knack for a support lineout wide is unrivaled by any other player.
He is also the New Zealand captain in waiting.
Two very different players have a very simple task to do for their sides on Saturday—get their team on the front foot. Whoever has the greater success will give his colleagues a great chance to take control.
Chris Ashton v Charls Piutau
Having watched Charles Piutau strut his stuff in Paris last week, you’d have forgiven Chris Ashton for rushing off to Clinton’s to by Christian Wade a Get Well Soon card.
The young New Zealander looks like one dangerous customer. His speed and ball control for his try were impressive, but his back-handed flick to Kieran Read for New Zealand’s second try that was the match-winner was sublime.
Piutau and Ashton could not be further apart on the form spectrum right now, and the reprieved Ashton— surely only still in the starting XV due to Christian Wade's injury misfortune—needs a whopping great improvement to come out on top against the All Blacks’ latest not-so baby-faced assassin.
No one in the world is better at kicking the ball away and getting it back than New Zealand.
They hang their kick-offs high and short to give their long-limbed chasing forwards the best chance of getting there first, and they profit from those knockdowns handsomely.
England will need to have done their homework in this area to try and stop this tactic. A ball batted back from a kick-off creates havoc, with a defence scrambling and the attacking side pouring forward quickly.
The loss of Alex Corbisiero may have dented England's ability to gain the upper hand at scrum time, but it remains an area in the balance.
New Zealand haven't taken anyone's scrum apart in quite the manner England set about Australia's two weekends ago, and with Dan Cole reinstated and Joe Marler showing himself to be the real deal at international level, England could and should attack the All Black scrum.
If they can unsettle this source of possession, it could prove profitable for Chris Robshaw and co. Last season England built a big lead in this fixture off the back of penalties, and the scrum could provide Owen Farrell with the chance to do the same again this year.